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Getting to Know Galileo

By MaryLou Driedger

Galileo_by_leoni Getting to know Galileo was an unexpected pleasure on my recent trip to Italy. I learned many new things about Galileo, as I walked the streets of the cities where he lived and worked. Galileo is perhaps the world’s most famous astronomer and physicist.

The Museum of Science in Florence has a large display of telescopes some of them 400 years old created by Galileo and other early astronomers. One can only marvel at the persistence of these scientists. They had to scrounge around for suitable building materials and were often ridiculed for their scientific ideas. Galileo wrote a book called The Starry Messenger in which he describes his discovery of The Milky Way and the four moons of Jupiter. He presented the original bound copy to Cosimo Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany along with the first telescope he invented. That copy of the Starry Messenger and the telescope are both displayed in the Museum of Science in Florence. My favorite item in the museum was a grocery list. It’s a page from one of Galileo’s notebooks on which he’s listed the supplies for a scientific experiment having to do with optics. Interspersed in that list he has scribbled words like chickpeas, rice, pepper and sugar, obviously grocery items he needs. Even people working on groundbreaking discoveries need to be concerned about the more mundane aspects of everyday life.

629px-Mendenhall_gravimeter_pendulums The experiment Galileo is perhaps most famous for is one he conducted at the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Galileo, who was born in Pisa, gathered a group of scholars together to watch as he dropped a heavy cannon ball and a lighter musket ball off the Leaning Tower of Pisa to prove that both fall at the same speed. We visited the Leaning Tower on a cold, rainy day and although we did not climb to the top of the tower to try to recreate Galileo’s experiment we did go inside the nearby cathedral. We saw a large, ornate brass lamp that inspired Galileo to invent the pendulum. Galileo was sitting in church one Sunday when he was a student at the University of Pisa. During the service he watched that lamp swinging back and forth and that’s what prompted him to begin a study of pendulums.

One place we didn’t get to visit in Florence, because it is in the process of being restored, was the home where Galileo lived under house arrest for the last decade of his life after being condemned by the Catholic Church for insisting the sun and not the earth was the centre of the solar system.

At the Pitti Palace in Florence I saw Susterman’s portrait of Galileo prominently displayed along with the likenesses of other famous citizens. We visited the Santa Croce Cathedral where I took photographs of the tomb where Galileo is buried. It’s nice to know that while he ended his life as a prisoner Galileo is being properly honored now for the contributions he made to the scientific world.
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